But for all the recent success, the Big Three still command just 45 percent of the vehicle market in the United States. That is up from a few years ago, but it is down dramatically from their peak. As recently as 1997, Detroit held 70 percent of the U.S. market.
And, while overall U.S. vehicle sales are improving, they are still well below long-term trends. Analysts estimate that 2012 vehicle sales will probably top 14.4 million, but that will need to rise to 16 million or 17 million before automakers are back to their pre-crisis point.
(The Washington Post/Source: Autodata.com) - Auto sales for March are up for most companies.
Even with the big March boost, Darvish said, domestic companies are not going to be consistently profitable “until we get to 2007 levels.”
Whether that happens depends on a number of factors. If gas prices keep rising, nervous consumers could delay vehicle purchases further. A March survey by TechnoMetrica found that the number of Americans hoping to buy or lease a car in the next six months had halved of late, thanks to higher fuel prices.
Industry observers also warn that foreign manufacturers will not vanish without a fight. Last year, Toyota struggled through an unprecedented series of natural disasters — such as the earthquake in Japan and floods in Thailand — that disrupted its supply chain. The year before, the company faced an investigation by the U.S. government into “sticky” gas pedals that forced it to recall 8 million units. (The cars were later deemed safe.) But Toyota has had a healthy 2012, with March sales up 11.2 percent over the previous year and Prius sales at an all-time high. Meanwhile, Korean companies such as Hyundai and Kia are making impressive inroads into the U.S. market.
For now, however, Detroit has reason for optimism. Thanks to the resurgence of the auto industry, Michigan’s once-staggering unemployment rate has improved faster than that of any state and now sits at 8.8 percent, not far from the national average.
“There’s a huge multiplier in automotive work,” McAlinden said. “It’s a good situation for Michigan.”
Staff writer Thomas Heath contributed to this report.